Brands matter more in an age of passive consumption
A view from Matt Mee

Brands matter more in an age of passive consumption

Technology is turning consumers into passive purchasers - all the more reason for companies to keep the faith and invest in their brands, MediaCom's global chief strategy officer says.

It would be easy – but foolish – for companies to give up on their brands and become simply tactical, investing everything in making that immediate sale, the brochure request or the test drive.

It might seem that the future – especially for low-interest categories such as washing powder or batteries – will be ruled by artificially intelligent overlords.

From voice to e-commerce, and AI to passive selection, many consumer decisions are already effectively being automated.

We need only look at voice, such as Amazon’s voice-activated Alexa (pictured, above) or Google’s new Assistant powered devices to see how new tech is pushing brands to the periphery.

The prospect of people saying "Alexa, add AA batteries to my Prime order", rather than calling out a specific brand name, is enough to make any brand owner fearful.

And it’s not just new interfaces driving this new behaviour.

Traditional e-commerce is also contributing. If you look at the UK, where 7.3% of grocery sales now happen online, many consumers are already transitioning to "passive selection".

The majority of brands in any online basket remain unchanged from week to week.

We would appear to be entering a world where firms forget about building long-tail, brand value and focus squarely on optimising their keywords, visuals and search terms for algorithms in search of immediate business.

Nevertheless, there are still good reasons and brilliant ways to build brands.

The challenge for marketers is to identify new spaces in which their brands can thrive and the correct balance between response and branding as well as the right triggers to ensure consumers request them by name.

That means playing on consumer emotion, understanding and leveraging the simple rules of thumb and emotions that consumers to navigate thousands of complex decisions.

For all our technology, it is still often the intangible, subjective aspects of a brand that give people pleasure.

These are the things that drive the answers to questions like, does Coke taste better than Pepsi? Well, it will do if that’s what you believe.

Or is a Mars bar tastier than a Snickers? In the eyes of some consumers, you can count on it.

Other profitable avenues include the need to find broader reasons for selection.

The most valuable brands are those that aim higher than just promoting their products, those that can become cultural leaders by successfully responding to historical shifts in human attitudes.

Often that means standing for something and initiating change. Purpose is the new glue that makes a brand both worthy of our cognitive effort as consumers and sticky for algorithms.

If a brand or service is not just providing functional benefits but also doing something we support (for example, Pedigree dog food supporting a dog adoption campaign), it adds an important counterbalance to the passive command: "Alexa, add 15 kilos of dog food to my order".

Consumers will also reach for brands they feel are culturally relevant. Dove’s global ‘Real Beauty’ work, for example, encouraged people to rethink their definitions of beauty; while Ariel’s ‘Share the Load’ initiative in India encouraged men to challenge traditional gender roles in the home.

Both campaigns successfully drove sales while building long-term differentiation in (in Ariel’s case, at least) low-attention categories.

Getting this right requires companies to seriously rethink how they allocate their budgets between driving short-term sales and long-term loyalty.

The traditional rule of thumb was that brands should split their marketing 60:40, with the bulk assigned to boosting the brand in order to make sure it comes to mind in the last mile.

It’s a refreshingly simple formula but the truth is much more complex.

It will depend on which sector a marketer’s brands are in, how much they’ve previously invested in both brand and response, their rivals’ positions, and the way their category is evolving the digitisation of the purchase experience.

We recently conducted new research with human behaviour analysts Sandtable and found that for FMCG at least the amount of response-driven activity should be much lower for many brands.

We found, for example, that only 13% of adults will respond to seeing weekly adverts from razor Brand X; the other 87% are either already customers or don’t use razors.

That leaves the segment that can be effectively targeted as 13% (although, as perfect targeting is not possible, the optimal budget split might be closer to 80:20 than 87:13).

Other sectors, even within FMCG, will be different, but the analysis demonstrates that in FMCG at least, brands should be spending less on response not more.

Because, despite all our technology driving us to be passive consumers, most of us are human and our selections are often impulsive and far from rational.

We want to care about the things we buy and brands exist to help us navigate the purchase process and make selection easier.

Businesses that succumb to the doom and gloom will find it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Those that are bold and make each purchase mean something will have a brighter future.

Matt Mee is global chief strategy officer at MediaCom